On Roman Catholic Priesthood

by Fr. Charles Irvin

May, 1995

The Second Vatican Council closed over twenty-five years ago without any keen examination of what it really means, existentially means, to be a priest in the modern world. Nor did it present us with much of a new vision into to the nature of the priesthood as it is expressed in today’s world, being for the most part content with reiteration. Subsequent official Church documents and pronouncements have likewise neglected to integrate the parish priesthood into the other major components of the Church in any dynamic new, albeit systematic, way.

We must not neglect to note that our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has written some things, some very good and profound things (of considerable gravitas, I must say) about what it means to be a priest, along with writings which have additionally appeared from various priests and priests’ support groups. And not too many years ago our own U. S. Catholic Bishops gave us some good insights and elements to think about.

The Congregation for the Clergy in Rome has just published its “Directory For The Life And Ministry Of Priests”, yet another offering. The Congregation gives us its vision of what it means to be a priest under five aspects, the Trinitarian Dimension, the Christological Dimension, the Pneumatological Dimension, the Ecclesial Dimension and in the Priestly Communion, all of which identify who and what he is in ontic categories, devoid of the existential passions and tensions which, in an active and non-static world (as well as in modality of intellectual analysis), give him an identity as an actor in the world, even though he is not “of” it as the Church defines him. He is (he lives and moves and has his being) in persona Christi capitis, declares the new Directory, a phrase and a thought category hardly able to be grasped by those who slug out their daily existence among today’s crises, collapsed traditions, and secularizing trends.

The Directory then goes to its conclusion by presenting once again all of the traditional components of priestly spirituality that have been a part of the Church’s treasury for centuries, concluding with exhortations to all concerned, particularly bishops, to assure that the proper formation of priests is given and maintained according to the mind of Holy Mother Church.

Nevertheless, in spite of all that’s been written about priests subsequent to Vatican Council II, the uncomfortable fact remains that the Second Vatican Council, along with papal, curial, and episcopal documents, have spent considerable energy and effort with regard to status of the Papacy, the Episcopacy, the Magisterium, and the People of God, while devoting considerably less to parish priests and their importance. Furthermore, all of the literature I have mentioned above has for the most part been written in ontic categories that are useful only to those engaged in the study of ecclesiology, while being unfamiliar to others. How, why, and for what reasons the priest confronts the modern world are categories that are not found very much at all in those ecclesiastical documents, statements, allocutions, and the like.

Who Christ is, what the Church is, and what a priest is are, of course, very important notions to conceptually understand. But what a priest does is of more immediate importance to the world surrounding him, and therefore to him as a person acting for us and among us in our day and age. One approach is static, concerned with status, the other dynamic, existentially concerned. Church documents have been, with rare and therefore notable exceptions, written in the status/ontic mode. The newly issued Directory is very much in that older tradition, therefore necessarily giving scant countenance to those dynamic aspects which ontic language is not designed to embrace.

The price of this split-level sacerdotality is now being paid by ordinary parish priests. One has only to look out over the landscape of the Church in the latter half of this century to see their bodies strewn about on the ground, a few good men still standing, trying to deal with the aftermath, much like the scene following Pickett’s Charge in the great Battle of Gettysburg.

We ordinary parish priests have been the foot soldiers in a near Apocalyptic spiritual battle that’s raged since the late 1960’s until now. There are those who attribute the carnage and loss to the Second Vatican Council’s departure from the model of the Tridentine Church (remember the Church Militant and Triumphant?) existing without spot or wrinkle above, and not in, a crass and shallow world. Others attribute our losses (following Andrew Greeley) to failed leadership amongst the ranks of our bishops. Where, they cry, are the Irelands, Spauldings and Gibbonses? Where are the giants who once strode our American earth and presented our Church in its greatness to a hostile world around it? Others, still, see the carnage due to the Culture Wars still raging and which likewise began in those late 1960’s, particularly symbolized in that watershed year of 1968 when so many giants fell.

Rather than attribute all that has diminished us, and diminished the ranks of parish priests both in morale and in numbers, to internal failures within our Family of Faith, still others see the presence of the Evil One working in that world that he claimed as his when he first tempted Christ in the desert. Those of us now still standing remain as the ones anointed by God to lead His people toward that ultimate victory that is promised us in the last book of the New Testament. The Apocalypse is, after all and pre-eminently, a book of hope, not a book of despair. It tells us that the world is always ending; that civilizations and worlds prior to ours have ended, that ours is ending, and that others to follow will likewise end. The Eschatological “Day of the Lord” is always upon us; the sun has darkened and the graves have opened, and the Reign of God is coming upon us in His kingdom being born within our very midst, rising Phoenix-like from the ash and debris.

Therefore, it sometimes surprises (or in some cases chagrins) folks when I tell them: “I’m energized by the crises priests face in today’s world.” It’s exciting to be a priest these days because we have all of the correctives for the chronic illnesses that subsist in the culture that surrounds us. As priests we’re needed more now than perhaps ever before. Therefore we can live lives that are filled with meaning and purpose (though not all priests do, of course). Interrelating with people during the most significant moments of their lives, we have an importance for them that can at times be greater than that of doctors, lawyers or psychiatrists. Fr. James Bacik, a noted author and lecturer and a priest of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, tells us that “priests are exactly the antidotes to all that’s wrong in our culture.”

In an intellectual world of moral relativism, we stand for perennial values and ethical norms that lead to healthy and holistic human behavior, with the result that people can live lives of serenity and fulfillment even in the midst of collapse and chaos. In a culture that values caring for self first and then for others, we stand for being responsible and caring for others first and then for self. Priests live lives that witness communitarian values as being primary; individualistic values as subordinate (well, most priests, that is!).

Among literati who tend to regard freedom as license, priests hold to the notion that freedom entails responsibility. God gives us freedom to respond to the Good, to do what is right and good. He doesn’t give His children freedom as a license for shallow self- aggrandizement and the acquisition of power over others.

In a popular culture that is more and more anti-intellectual, priests stand for the notion that faith is an act of human reason and thoughtful choice, not simply a nice, warm fuzzy feeling. In a world that trivializes religion as being a sort of private hobby in which one indulges one’s subjective feelings and emotions, priests present religion as one of the deepest of human needs, as a quest of the human mind, and as a reasoned choice that brings fulfillment to our human power to choose.

In a secular, civil society that tends to regard faith as individualistic, subjective and emotional, ours is a lasting tradition that has stood the test of time. We have watched what is voguish and faddish come and go in its own superficiality while seeing what we hold to in shared belief perduring with rock-like stability.

In a world that is fragmented and broken, wherein any one interest group necessarily pits itself against all others in order to gain superiority and dominant control, the priest stands for family, community and the common good in sharing the stuff of life and the things of the spirit. In a win/lose culture the priest stands for a win/win way of mutual sharing and living in a holistic communion.

In a hedonistic culture that’s hung up on sex, anywhere, anytime, with anyone or anything, that regards sex as little more than mutual masturbation, ours is a tradition that regards sex as an act of spiritual intimacy and communion. We really do see it as an act in which souls unite with each other. But in a world wherein people do not realize that they have souls, we must appear to be mad. Sex and commitment? Sex and our innermost beings? Hooey, says the world around us.

In a world that denies the reality of death and refuses give serious attention to life after death, we priests enter into it with Jesus Christ in order to show others that death is but another birth, a birth into a new and transcendent life.

Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris at an earlier time in this century, once wrote: “Every Christian, especially the Christian priest, must be a witness. To be a witness consists in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” It’s exciting to live life like that.

A priest calls others to live this life so fully that they can die in the fullness of life and thus transcend this life by passing over into another. How one dies depends upon how one lives. Therefore, living this life is of the utmost importance. Because dying is of the utmost importance, we must live accordingly. To be a priest is to be passionately against our culture’s apathy and indifference toward death. To be apathetic and indifferent toward death makes one, necessarily, passive and indifferent toward life, especially the life that’s inherent in the weakest of persons.

In a religious culture that exalts rights of privacy with all of the resultant fracturing of communal bonds and the breaking apart of communities and churches, the Catholic Church remains bonded in unity, and (curiously!) inclusive of many diversities within its Household of Faith. The fracturing of the Church is something she has avoided at all costs, with a few spectacular exceptions. Priests will go to any length to keep folks Catholic, much to the chagrin of many. Excommunications have gone the way of the Inquisition and other past horrors.

In a legal system that regards the Church as simply an association of like-mined coreligionists who create and sustain their church solely according to human politics and standards (however high-minded they may be), priests give witness to the reality that the Church was founded by God and is maintained by God, an edifice built by God, not by Man (cf. Genesis 11:1-9 and Luke 2).

In a political climate that exalts the exercise of power, the priest comes to us with authority. Power relies on limitless dominance and control, authority relies on inner principles and truths that come from God. Power flows from the capricious and fickle will of all too human men and women. All genuine authority, however, flows from God. The American Revolution grounded its revolt against the power of King George by appealing to “inalienable rights” in which we are endowed by our Creator. In other words, no government, Congress or Court gives us our rights, only God does. The French Revolution just thirteen years later grounded its revolt in the self-proclaimed Rights of Man. Presently, secularist Americans are busily rewriting our Declaration of Independence to fit the French mold, separating Religion from State and thereby removing our government from its grounding in God, the Transcendent Source of all human rights. The result, if they succeed, will be catastrophic; our rights will then depend upon the fickle will of human beings and the political power which they capriciously manipulate.

In a culture that exalts money, comfort, ease, sex, power, prestige, projection of self over and against others, conspicuous affluence, and privatism, the priest witnesses to a life beyond this world, a lived life in this world that transcends the faddish, the transitory, the superficial, the self-centered, privatistic style of living that projects the private good over the common good, the individual over the community, and the material over the spiritual, it’s Goddess being Madonna. The priest lives a life that is transcendent, eternal and meaningful; his life is necessarily counter-cultural, and as a result can be quite challenging if he lives it with integrity. Secularists look to majority opinion polls and majority votes in order to determine law, norms, and even truth itself. We find truth and moral norms in the Lord of life and in the God who awaits us at the end of our life, the Finality toward which all of life is ordered. The world finds truth in information, facts and data. The priest finds it in a larger reality, in Wisdom, something that transcends data processing and our own manipulation of facts and information to suit our purposes. These are all under human control and therefore not truly objective or absolutely reliable. The priest finds truth subsisting in the One who is above and beyond that which humans can control, in Wisdom, in the One we call our God and our Creator.

Can you think of a life that could be more exciting, challenging and meaningful? I’m sure that many can, but I find these particular challenges to be highly charged and very energizing. In special moments I really do feel like God has called me to be a living mystery, and I must discharge my duty by living life in a way that doesn’t make any sense to human reason alone, not just to save my own soul, but to cut a path through this world’s darkness in order that others may see and follow me into the Mystery of God’s Presence.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have miles to go before I sleep…”, God willing.


About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”